29 people died in Texas jail in about 12 months; activists demand cameras, investigation

Punitive bail laws, according to detractors, are at least partially to blame for the congestion and overcrowding at Harris County Jail, where protesters gathered on Sunday.

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Family members and community activists are among those demanding an investigation into a Texas jail in the wake of 29 deaths there in just over a year.

According to The Houston Chronicle, two people have already died at Houston’s Harris County Jail in 2023. Last year, 27 died there — the highest number in almost two decades — amid concerns of unsafe circumstances at the facility, which has suffered from overcrowding, a lack of personnel, and charges of abuse and neglect.

The Jailhouse Justice Coalition, a neighborhood advocacy group, held a vigil on Sunday, calling for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg to launch a special investigation into the deaths. The group also wants body cameras for jail staff, an end to the practice of sending inmates to other correctional facilities, and the dismissal of charges in cases older than nine months.

Harris County Jail
Since the beginning of last year, 29 people have died at Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas, prompting calls for an investigation and demands that its staff wear body cameras. (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube.com/KHOU11 News)

Amaal Munei, a Jailhouse Justice Coalition co-founder, directed those gathered to recite aloud the names of the 29 people who’ve died at Harris County Jail since the start of 2022. The protesters stood before the prison’s seven stories in front of a table covered in white flowers and pictures of Kristan Smith and Evan Lee, whose families were present, while holding electric candles.

“This building is supposed to be for rehabilitation and housing, taking care of human beings,” said Lee’s mother, Jacilet Griffin, The Chronicle reported. “If they’re not able to operate and take care of human beings… they need to shut this building down.”

Deborah Smith addressed the crowd while waving two posters bearing pictures of her daughter, Kristan, who passed away at the jail in April. According to her mother, Kristan had diabetes and did not receive the necessary care while incarcerated.

“This is what I gave them,” Smith said, displaying a poster showing a smiling, standing Kristan. Holding up the second, showing her 38-year-old daughter in bed hospitalized, Smith countered, “This is what they gave me back.”

Restoring Justice planned another vigil for Monday afternoon to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. According to its Instagram account, the group intended to go to the Harris County Jail to sing songs and pray from the street to show their love for its thousands of detainees.

Punitive bail laws, according to detractors, are at least partially to blame for the jail’s congestion, which, on Sunday, exceeded its 10,000-person maximum. According to county records, most prisoners are still awaiting trial, and 20 percent have been given bond amounts under $10,000. 

“The trauma experienced by the people detained in jail ripples throughout our communities,” said Coalition organizer Bethany Fabrygel, according to The Chronicle. “It tears apart families, it keeps parents away from their children, and it continually eats away at the well-being of our most vulnerable community members.”

Shannon Herklotz, the jail’s assistant chief for detentions, submitted his resignation to the Harris County Sheriff’s office last week, expressing dissatisfaction with a change in the department’s leadership in light of the problems the facility under his watch was facing the past two years.

The sheriff’s office has admitted problems at the Harris County Jail but has maintained that multiple agencies are involved in the difficulties, including creating the circumstances that lead to its overcrowding.

“All these different entities — various law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, healthcare providers, judges, the sheriff’s office — are all cogs in the criminal justice system,” said Jason Spencer, chief of staff for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, The Chronicle reported, “and when that system creates a backlog where we have more people coming in than leaving, you have a crowding situation like we have.”

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